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Alabama’s gold rush has long passed, but George Holmes has fun, and success, panning for what’s left

It was a hot summer day at Camp Sequoyah in Delta, Alabama, when George Holmes first got gold fever.

A scoutmaster for more than 20 years, he was leading his Boy Scouts troop when he first noticed there was a merit badge for gold-panning. He became interested and took a gold-panning class.

“I spent an entire day trying to gold pan and I didn’t find anything,” said Holmes, a critical systems technician for Alabama Power. Or so he thought – until he brought his pan back to the instructor for a look.

“To my surprise, there was a little piece of gold there. I was thrilled and it piqued my interest. I have developed since then and I have gotten better at it.”

He has been gold panning for more than six years now, and Holmes knows some of the best places in the state to look.

With the permission of landowners, he searches for gold in his leisure time. And usually, about once a month, he said he joins family and friends panning around the “Piedmont uplift” that runs through northern Alabama and exits into Georgia.

Gold panning is one of the simplest ways to extract gold. It is popular with geology enthusiasts because of its low cost. Recreational gold panners strive to protect the environment, do not use harsh chemicals and properly discard trash. Lead is separated and does not go back in the water. It is recycled and sent to be disposed of in a lead scrapyard.

“Gold panning takes practice,” Holmes said. “Gold is heavier than anything you will find in the creek. The process starts by gathering particles from a creek and working it into a pan. Naturally, the heavier particles will sink to the bottom of the pan. After that, slowly remove the lighter particles until there is only black sand and gold left. Once this has been completed, separate the particles.”

Holmes is president of the north Alabama chapter of Gold Prospectors Association of America. He enjoys teaching others about the sport. He has learned that self-paced learning is the best approach. The Alabama Gold Camp also teaches the pastime.

“You won’t get rich, but you will have fun,” Holmes said. “Anybody that loves the outdoors, hiking, camping, fishing, hunting and any kind of outdoor activity is probably going to enjoy gold panning.

“To be good at gold panning, you will need to practice,” Holmes said. “You can learn it in a few hours, but to be really good at it, lots of practice is required. Most of the time, I will find a little gold. It reminds me of fishing – some days are better than others.”